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Daydreams: The Secular Experts Speak

Jul 19, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

I am excited to share with you a new series of weekly reflections on daydreams and the ways that your daydreams can help you understand yourself, your parts, and your needs in new, deeper, and better ways.

Often, daydreams are not what they seem. So much happens beneath the surface of a daydream. In this series, I offer you an invitation to delve into what your daydreams can teach you about you.

Our outreach, Souls and Hearts, is all about bringing you the best of psychological and human formation resources grounded in an authentic Catholic understanding of the human person – the best of the secular harmonized with the best of the spiritual (not the other way around). Let’s begin our deep dive into the realm of daydreaming by examining what secular experts in the field of psychology have to say on this topic…

Defining “daydream”

As Confucius said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names.” Nowhere is this truer than when we are examining our internal phenomenology – our subjective experiences, all that happens within our hearts and minds on a natural level.

And, as is often the case in psychology, especially in describing inner experience, definitions of the word “daydream” vary widely. The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology definition of a daydream as:

Daydream: a waking fantasy, or reverie, in which wishes, expectations, and other potentialities are played out in imagination. Part of the stream of thoughts and images that occupy most of a person’s waking hours, daydreams may be unbidden and apparently purposeless or simply fanciful thoughts, whether spontaneous or intentional. Researchers have identified at least three ways in which individuals’ daydreaming styles differ: positive-constructive daydreaming, guilty and fearful daydreaming, and poor attentional control. These styles are posited to reflect the daydreamer’s overall emotion and personality tendencies. Among the important positive functions that daydreams may serve are the release of strong affect, the gaining of self-insight when reviewing past experiences or rehearsing for future situations, the generation of creative solutions, and the production of greater empathy for others.

Daydream researchers Zedelius, Protzko, Broadway, and Schooler in their 2020 article defined daydreams differently, as “thinking about something other than the here and now, being disengaged or “decoupled” from one’s surroundings or current activities, and engaged in an internal stream of thought.” [p. 1].

These definitions highlight the important characteristics of daydreams:

  1. Daydreams are very common, and can take up a lot of time – some studies estimate up to 50% of our waking hours (Mooneyman & Schooler, 2013)
  2. Daydreams involve the faculty of the imagination, and create scenarios that go beyond the stimuli of present experience
  3. Daydreams disconnect us from immediate experience, disengaging us from our current activities and our present surroundings
  4. Daydreams immerse us in an “internal stream of thought,” fueled by our imagination
  5. Wishes and expectations are played out in daydreams
  6. “Potentialities” are also played out in daydreams, specifically internal experiences like strong emotions (especially fears), impulses, attitudes, beliefs, intentions, etc.
  7. Daydreams may arise spontaneously or be intentionally fostered and elaborated
  8. Daydreams can seem to be without meaning or purpose, merely “fanciful thoughts” (note the emphasis I place on the word “seem” – not everything is as it seems)
  9. There are different kinds of daydreams (and different kinds of daydreamers)
  10. Daydreams can be adaptive, bringing positive goods to the daydreamer
  11. Daydreams can also be maladaptive, fueled by fear, guilt, or poor attentional control

Synonyms for daydream in the psychological literature include “mind wandering,” “task-unrelated thought,” “stimulus-unrelated thought,” and “self-generated thought.” (Zedelius et al., 2020).

Types of daydreams

Zedelius and colleagues (2020), based on their content analysis of daydreams, identified six major themes that characterize most daydreams. Their taxonomy yielded these categories:

  1. Planning daydreams– focused on considering the future and preparing for demands
  2. Pleasant daydreams– enjoying pleasant thoughts associated with warm and happy feelings
  3. Personally meaningful daydreams– centered on topics of great importance or value
  4. Unaware/unintentional daydreams– these are spontaneous and happen without much awareness or active consent
  5. Sexual daydreams– sexual fantasies
  6. Fantastical daydreams– imagining the supernatural, the bizarre, the unlikely or impossible, engaging in unrealistic fantasies

Roles of daydreamers in their daydreams

A 2021 web article titled Top 4 Types of Maladaptive Daydreaming identifies four roles that daydreamers take on within their fantasies.

  1. The main character– this occurs when the daydreamer is the primary actor in the daydream, and is the most common and most adaptive role
  2. The similar character– this happens when the star of the daydream is similar to the daydreamer in some ways, but has abilities and qualities that are spectacular and heroic and likely unattainable
  3. The foreign character– this happens when the daydreamer believes the main character is like himself or herself, but who, in reality, is very different in almost all aspects, disconnected from the reality of who the daydreamer actually is
  4. The observer– a rarer role for the daydreamer, this occurs when the daydreamer is a passive observer of what happens in the daydream, not taking an active role in the lives he or she creates for others.

Negative effects of daydreaming

In their 2013 article titled The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering, Benjamin Mooneyham and Jonathan Schooler reviewed dozens of empirical studies assessing the impact of daydreaming on various measures of performance. Based on the findings of 32 studies, they concluded that:

Substantial evidence suggests that mind-wandering typically occurs at a significant cost to performance. Mind-wandering–related deficits in performance have been observed in many contexts, most notably reading, tests of sustained attention, and tests of aptitude. Mind-wandering has been shown to negatively impact reading comprehension and model building, impair the ability to withhold automatized responses, and disrupt performance on tests of working memory and intelligence. [p. 11].

In summary, their findings indicate that excessive daydreaming results in significantly decreasing performance in cognitive functioning, including:

  1. Attention and concentration
  2. Reading speed and reading comprehension
  3. Working memory (very short-term memory)
  4. General intelligence (perhaps mediated by working memory deficits)
  5. Mood – evidence suggests that “individuals are generally less happy when they are mind-wandering that when they are not” (cf. Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010)

Maladaptive daydreaming”

In 2002, Eli Somer, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Haifa, published a seminal article titled “Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry” in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, launching a new field of inquiry into extreme daydreaming. Recent epidemiological evidence indicates that about 2.5% of the population across several nationalities is afflicted with maladaptive daydreaming, which Somer (2002) defined as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.” [p. 197]

In his extensive interviews with six maladaptive daydreamers, Somer (2002) identified two major functions of maladaptive daydreaming: First, disengagement from stress and pain by mood enhancement and wish fulfillment fantasies; and second, seeking companionship, intimacy, and soothing via fantasy.

Somers also found that the following common major content themes in these individuals’ daydreams:

  1. Violence
  2. An idealized self
  3. Power and control
  4. Captivity, rescue, and escape
  5. Sexual arousal

Thomas Willem Renckens captured the stories of individuals suffering from maladaptive daydreaming on video in a fascinating and descriptive 32-minute documentary titled The Daydreamers – along with some interview footage with Eli Somer.

Somedaydream’s song Hey Daydreamer invites the listener to experience an intense romantic daydream and in my opinion, illustrates the blurring of the lines of fantasy and reality that maladaptive daydreamers experience.

Since Somer’s seminal article in 2002, there has been much more interest in and research on maladaptive daydreaming, including several scales to measure it. The International Consortium for Maladaptive Daydreaming Research provides some of the best resources on the maladaptive daydreaming in one place. Of particular interest is their landing page which provides measures and scoring instructions to the general public – some of these, like the 16-item Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale have considerable research data to support their reliability and validity as a psychological test, not just another internet quiz or questionnaire. A cutoff score of 40 or greater on the MDS-16 suggests probable maladaptive daydreaming. You can download a pdf of the MDS-16 here.

Positive effects of daydreaming

Some evidence suggests significant benefits to daydreaming in specific areas. Mooneyman and Schooler (2013) found a handful of studies that suggest that daydreaming “may play a crucial role in both autobiographical planning and creative problem solving.” [p. 11].

The latter possibility was supported by Zedelius et al. (2020) who found that personally meaningful daydreaming correlated with greater self-reported creativity and that fantastical daydreaming was associated with more creative writing quality and day-to-day creative behavior.

Looking ahead in the series on daydreaming

In our next weekly reflection, I will apply the wisdom of the Catholic Church to the topic of daydreaming, exploring the moral aspects of daydreaming, showing the distinction between virtuous daydreaming and sinful daydreaming. In future reflections, we will address how our burdened exiled parts’ unmet attachment needs and unmet integrity needs fuel daydreams. We will also explore different approaches resolving excessive daydreaming – the conventional approaches from both secular and spiritual authorities, but also some new, alternative approaches informed by Internal Family Systems and grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person.

Be With the Word for the 16th and 17th Sundays in Ordinary Time

Join Dr. Gerry and me for a discussion of the Sunday Mass readings for July 23, 2023 for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, where we discuss Why it’s OK to Pray Badly (rather than not praying at all). We read the Mass reading aloud here.

Also for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 30, 2023, Dr. Gerry and I discuss How to Find Joy Unexpectedly. The Mass readings are here.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

Academic works cited:

Mooneyham, B. W., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: A review. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 67, 11.

Somer, E. (2002) Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 32, 197–212.

Zedelius, C. M., Protzko, J., Broadway, J. M., & Schooler, J. W. (2020, August 10). What Types of Daydreaming Predict Creativity? Laboratory and Experience Sampling Evidence. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication

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